Hornets go big by drafting Duke’s Mark Williams at 15th

Charlotte traded away No. 13 pick Jalen Duren and maneuvered to select Bryce McGowens in Round 2

Duke center Mark Williams, right, is congratulated by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver after being selected 15th overall by the Charlotte Hornets in last Thursday's NBA Draft in New York. (John Minchillo / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Last week’s NBA Draft was a roller coaster for the Charlotte Hornets, and after the ride, there were varying opinions on how the team used its three picks, including two selections in the teens.

With the 13th overall pick, Charlotte selected Memphis Tigers center Jalen Duren but then traded him to Detroit for future draft picks: a conditional first-rounder and four second-round selections.

While many predicted that a trade might happen with one of the Hornet’s two first-round picks, there was some shock that Charlotte landed the player viewed by many as the draft’s best center —the team’s biggest need — only to immediately part with him.

It turns out Duren wasn’t the center the Hornets wanted.

The team instead selected Duke big man Mark Williams two picks later, instantly adding a 7-foot target who can protect the rim, block shots and adds skill in the paint that Charlotte has lacked. Most importantly, he can anchor the Hornets’ defense from day one with his 7-foot-7 wingspan.

The Norfolk, Virginia, native will immediately become a top-tier lob threat to pair alongside LaMelo Ball for many years.

“The guys on the team play together, work hard and have fun. … I think I fit really well with them, just with the way I play,” Williams told reporters following his selection. “I think all the things I bring to the table will be really helpful. They won’t regret it.”

Williams, 20, played two years at Duke and averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in his sophomore season, earning the 2022 ACC Defensive Player of the Year award.

“He has a lot of work in getting stronger, and I don’t have any doubt that he’ll work hard and get in the weight room,” Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said of his new center. “He’s a good rebounder, I wouldn’t say that he’s gonna be our rebound monster right now, but I think if he gets stronger, I think he can become an excellent rebounder.”

As draft night continued, details emerged on the return from the Duren trade. Charlotte had received Denver’s 2023 first-round pick, the Knicks’ 2023 and 2024 second-round picks, Utah’s 2023 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick from either Dallas or Miami (whichever is higher).

Kupchak was asked by reporters if the trade had generated enough value in return considering New York received three protected first-round picks for the No. 11 pick while Minnesota received Nos. 22 and 29 in exchange for the 19th pick.

“We didn’t feel using both picks was prudent,” he said, adding that Williams was the team’s top prospect going into the draft. “GMs always say that we got the guy we had ranked No. 1, and we did. Of the three bigs, he was the guy we had No. 1, so it remains to be seen how lucky we really got.”

Kupchak wasn’t done with trades for the night, and the 2023 Knicks second-round pick was soon shipped out so the Hornets could move up from No. 45 to No. 40 to acquire Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens from the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The 19-year-old former Cornhusker can play multiple positions in the backcourt and will likely give the Hornets some added wing depth, either in Charlotte this coming season or with the Greensboro Swarm of the G League.

Although McGowens scored more than 17 points per game in his only collegiate season, he is still very raw and he will need to improve his defense to become a well-rounded player in the league. As a 6-foot-7 guard with potential big upside, his selection at No. 40 does feel like a solid investment for the Hornets.

The main takeaway from the draft is the Hornets strongly believe that Williams is the answer to their woes in the paint. Charlotte could have kept the 13th pick and paired the former Duke standout with Duren to create a rookie center tandem that could eventually eliminate the need to give minutes to Mason Plumlee, but Kupchak decided that he wanted to focus on just Williams.

The arc of Duren’s NBA career and how Williams develops will indicate whether or not that was the correct choice.